Colleges confused over ’emotional support’ animals

College student Sydney Sheets brings her dog Halo with her everywhere. He's not just a pet to her. He's like a walking medical device, helping her manage her diabetes.

PHOENIX, AZ (KTVK) — College student Sydney Sheets brings her dog Halo with her everywhere. He’s not just a pet to her. He’s like a walking medical device, helping her manage her diabetes.

Sheets explains, “If I’m, like, too low where I start losing my eyesight, he starts pulling me somewhere safe, and if I can’t get up from somewhere, he [sic] lays with me. He’s trained to go get people if I need him to.”

Halo is a service animal and fits right in with her college life.

Some at her schools struggle with Halo attending classes, but she has the law on her side. Service animals are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Emotional support animals have rights in the dorms and housing, under the federal housing act, but not in the classroom.

As schools around the country attempt to handle a rapid rise of animals on campus, knowing which is which is problem No. 1.

“Colleges and universities are lost at how to handle the situation,” explains Dr. Phyllis Erdman. She says they’ll need to revise previous no-pet policies to allow for dogs in dorms and animals in labs, and still face a balancing act between a growing number of students with medical or emotional needs and other students who may have dog phobias or animal allergy issues.

Erdman explains, “We’re going to need to have better training requirements for animals. We’re going to have to have offices in place on universities that can identify the service animals, emotional support animals, clearly help them determine which is which.”

They’ll also have to weed out from the real requests those abusing the system.

The problem is evident. Sydney’s mom, Karin Sheets, says people with emotional support animals with no mental health need in the end hurt those who do need the support. “I think that it does a disservice to people [sic] that really need them,” Sheets says.

Erdman says schools must update policies and educate employees quickly.

That’s happened on Sydney’s campus, where one run-in with a professor who didn’t know the law helped lead to changes already. Sydney explains, “They’ve done a lot of different measures to make it, make more awareness for service dogs and kind of etiquette for how to treat them when you see them on campus.”

College campuses are not the only places the problem has started to pop up. Similar issues are happening in courtrooms now, too, where judges are also struggling with whether the animals present a bias that could impact a case.